The article recalls Chatrapati Shvaji’s visionary approach in raising a powerful Navy in his times. India rulers have mostly been sea-blind in their approach. Shivaji raised a Navy and fought many a battle to defend his domain and extend his interests. Shavaji’s approach needs to have a deeper influence on our Navy and the leadership in planning the fleet expansion, modernisation and to protect our interests.
For the first time, the Indian Navy has decided to hold Operational Demonstration (Op Demo) on the occasion of Navy Day on 04 December 2023 at Tarkarli beach on the West Coast against the backdrop of the historic Sindhudurg sea fort built by Chatrapati Shivaji Maharaj. The choice of location is significant in the ongoing efforts to project important but neglected aspects of history in their correct perspective and revive the symbols of national heritage.
Last year, 75 years after independence, the Indian Navy cast away the old ensign and adopted a new one incorporating Chatrapati Shivaji Maharaj’s Ashtakoni Rajmudra (octagonal Royal Seal). It is not that the earlier ensign with a red Saint George’s Cross was in any way a handicap to the man at sea. After all, the Indian Navy proudly ‘showed the flag’ around the globe for many decades in pursuit of our maritime or diplomatic interests and also won its finest victory in 1971, handsomely contributing to the birth of Bangladesh, wearing the earlier ensign. But the sentiments expressed by the honourable Prime Minister at the unveiling of new ensign during the commissioning of the indigenously designed and built INS Vikrant on 2 September 2022 were persuasive enough. No Indian leader during the last one thousand years but the legendary Chatrapati can be a better role model not only for the Indian Navy but also for nation building.
The new ensign with its indigenous moorings will therefore continue to inspire our ships and formations at sea and ashore; at home and overseas; below the seas and in the skies above, reminding them of the great legacy of Shivaji and the extraordinary challenges surmounting which he conceived, built and nurtured the navy of the Swaraj. As we celebrate the Navy Week this year, it may be apt to recall some salients of Shivaji’s example and his maritime enterprise.
Shivaji essentially inherited a ‘landlocked’ jagir with no access to the sea! That a landlubber as him built a navy at all, is therefore even more commendable than the idea of Swaraj itself! Coastline is a coveted resource and Shivaji had to gain access to the sea by sword. Maratha ships built at Kalyan, Bhiwandi and Pen had to traverse long distances through riverine routes whose entrances to the sea were threatened by Portuguese Forts at Vasai, Ghodbunder (Thane), Karanja etc. Unfavourable geography did not deter the inception of the Navy.
Navies are capital intensive. Their equipping and expansion are predicated on political stability and economic health. Take for example, the unprecedented rise the Chinese Communist Party’s Navy (CCP Navy) in recent times, including pursuing ‘places & bases’ in the Indian Ocean Region (IOR) and garnering of diverse maritime assets across the globe. China’s overflowing treasure chests and relative geopolitical stability during the last three decades have provided fertile conditions for its naval growth. Which is why, the young Shivaji’s audacity to undertake a naval building enterprise, when he was financially insecure and lacked geopolitical stability, almost continuously fighting on land for his very survival, is noteworthy. It’s a tribute to his maritime vision and determination. The Adnyapatra – a treatise on statecraft distilled from Shivaji’s vision and practice grandly proclaims – ‘He who owns the Navy owns the Sea’.
By comparison, the mighty Moghuls, notwithstanding the abundance of finances from being the largest economy in the world, and also a well-established empire at its zenith, with the power to talk peace or wage war, lacked the foresight to build a navy, powerful enough. Their Sea Lanes of Communication (SLOC) which were crucial for trade as well as for pilgrimage to Mecca were open to molestation. Moghul apathy to matters maritime continued despite the tragic incident of their largest ship Rahimi being seized by the Portuguese at sea as early as 1613.
During Emperor Aurangzeb’s reign, he lost the well escorted Ganj-I- Sawai, a 62-gun ship even larger than Rahimi, returning from Mocha to Surat, to a single pirate ship commanded by the English fugitive Henry Every. Such triggers for building a robust maritime force were ignored, thanks to an obsession with the continental mindset that devoted over 90 percent of budget to land campaigns of questionable value.
Today, India cannot afford to fall into a similar trap citing the situation on the LAC/LOC and must follow Chatrapati Shivaji’s wake in providing requisite
Budgetary support for the Navy has been limited, year after year. Mirroring Shivaji’s era of multiple actors vying for space on the Konkan coast, today we see a jostling of extra regional maritime powers in our immediate neighbourhood with a daily average presence of about 100 foreign men of war in the northern IOR. Some of those powers are undoubtedly hostile to us and we would neglect the naval modernisation requirements at our peril.
The Immediate spinoff of raising Swaraj’s navy was in terms of enhanced security of the coastal areas, which had perennially suffered from pillage and plunder by Siddis of Janjira in particular, and also the Portuguese. Development of coastal forts, better domain awareness in coastal regions, and excellent intelligence organisation were force multipliers for the Marathas. Shivaji’s successful sea expedition to Basrur wherein he actually sailed onboard (a rarity for a ruler during a period that shunned crossing the sea citing misconceived religious beliefs) and the despatch of a naval force in coordination with land forces for capture of the Surat Fort were intelligence-based operations, though the latter was called off midway to avoid failure, following updated ‘actionable’ intelligence.
Independent India has been a victim of being surprised on many occasions due to inadequate intelligence at strategic and operational levels. The pervasive conventional and sub conventional threats loom large on both fronts. 26/11 like seaborne terrorism, piracy, trafficking of narcotics, illegal immigration, gun running, illegal activities in the Maritime zones of India mandate that coastal security apparatus, surveillance, fusion of information from various sources and most importantly, our intelligence set up are well oiled with relevant stakeholders held to account.
During Shivaji’s lifetime, his land and naval forces were almost continuously in a state of high alert or hostilities, with fleeting and deceptive peace, if any. The resultant fatigue on man and horse was accepted as a way of life. Today, given the prevailing geopolitical realities and vastness of the maritime areas of interest, our naval assets would need to be in a state of high readiness for prolonged durations notwithstanding the imperatives of maintenance, weather and morale. The leadership and material challenges that arise therefrom would need to be tackled with wisdom.
Shivaji used geography to great advantage in founding the Swaraj, and also in nurturing the nascent navy and conduct of operations at sea. Use of swarming tactics by agile Gallivats and Ghurabs, retreating to well known shallow waters under the cover of canons from sea forts or coastal batteries was a key to Maratha successes in view of handicap in quality and quantity of ordnance onboard and sea keeping vis a vis their adversaries. This was repeatedly seen but most notably during the Battle of Khanderi wherein the East India Company as well as the Siddis of Janjira could not dislodge the Marathas from the island.
Shivaji built new sea forts at Sindhudurg, Padmadrug and Khanderi to checkmate the Portuguese, Siddis, and English at Goa, Janjira and Mumbai, respectively. In a similar manner today, while capitalising on our unique peninsular geography, we must prioritise the development of military infrastructure in the Andaman & Nicobar and Lakshadweep & Minicoy groups of Islands. China is well ahead of us in this aspect having already done so in South China Sea, albeit illegally. We also need to emulate Shivaji’s outstanding example regarding the cost, quality and speed of execution of challenging infrastructure and shipbuilding projects.
Shivaji’s greatness is multi-faceted. He remains unmatched as a leader adept at identifying the right people from varied strata of society and religions, grooming and motivating them by the power of his persona to place the interests of the Swarajya above self. Innumerable examples exist but some that relate to the maritime domain may be mentioned here.
The campaign to build the sea fort on Khanderi Island overlooking the English held Bombay was undertaken during the difficult monsoon conditions and under stiff opposition from the English East India Company and the Siddis. Admirals Maynaik Bhandari and Daulat Khan of the Maratha Navy displayed outstanding leadership, tactics and strategy in accomplishing a challenging task against all odds, much as the Chatrapati himself did throughout his life. During the peak of campaign against the Siddis in 1675, a daring act of Laya Patil and his team was putting ladders from boats at sea.
Walls of the Janjira Fort notwithstanding, the predominant artillery threat could be an inspiring tale for Special Forces today. Shivaji committed a significant portion from the first raid on Surat in 1664, not for his personal aggrandisement or gratification, as was often the norm for rulers those days, but for building the sea fort of Sindhudurg, setting an example. During his absence, owing to conflict with the Moghuls, confinement at Agra by treachery and his daring escape thereafter, budgetary support no doubt dwindled but the work on construction was kept up with patriotic fervour by the likes of Hiroji Indalkar – the designer of Sindhudurg (as well as Raigad, in later years) placing ‘Swarajya before Self’.
As the Navy and the Nation sail to transit the Amrutkaal, the aspect of ethical leadership at all levels, promoting merit and grooming subordinates by example to place the national interests uppermost would make the difference between India’s success or failure to redeem our pledge of what Pandit Nehru called ‘Tryst with Destiny’.
Shivaji employed a number of Portuguese and other European designers and shipwrights for shipbuilding paying them handsomely, whilst simultaneously tasking his men to learn from them and indigenise. Shivaji did not dither from making efforts to buy canons and ordnance of superior quality (though the English in particular would sell him substandard guns of dubious quality) to give his men a fighting chance at winning as the local capability in these spheres was suboptimal. In the din of Atmanirbhar Bharat, we should not lose sight of our immediate war fighting requirements of critical technology and assets. Accountability for time bound development or indigenisation of imported equipment needs to be enforced. We must permit reasonable imports, while Atmanirbharta takes time to bear fruit in significant measures.
Shivaji was proud of his faith but never detested another. He had Christians building his ships and Muslims in the Navy including Admirals Ventajee Sarangi and Daulat Khan, and the likes of Siddi Hillal as his body guard. Shivaji was pained by the execution of Sikh Guru Teg Bahadur Singh and wrote a strong letter to Emperor Aurangzeb against his policy of religious intolerance. Even his adversaries praise Shivaji’s extraordinary respect for women, holy books and symbols of other religions.
Lastly, the Chatrapati remained a realist and a pragmatic maritime policy maker. He was shrewd enough to gauge that the Europeans had designs and motives that were not limited to trade alone. He did not get carried away by their deceptive talk and never forgot the English duplicity of providing artillery support to the Adil Shahi forces against him at Panhala. The Adnyapatra categorically cautions against providing the European companies any foothold on the coast. Today, as we engage with others, we need to trust, but verify; for there are no permanent friends or enemies but only permanent interests. We have two perpetually hostile adversaries bent on mischief, and a number of ongoing sub- conventional and hybrid threats to our security. For the ever-growing importance of the maritime domain and the wellbeing of our people, Shivaji’s example could be a reliable compass for India and the Indian Navy to steer by, in the turbulent waters that lie ahead.
Vice Admiral MS Pawar, (Retd)
Former Deputy Chief of Naval Staff